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Vladimir Nabokov: Two Early Poems on Creativity

by John Cobley

Sunday Apr 3rd, 2022




These two poems were written by Nabokov when he was in his early twenties. Both explore aspects of poetic creativity. “The Magician’s Shop” has an ironic tinge: the ambitious quest is treated with an image from the Icarus myth. “How Can I Explain?” is much more serious and conveys the difficult search for creativity. I could find no previous translations of these poems.


 The Magician’s Shop


In a tiny shop on a castal side street,

a magician in glasses and 

a blue-grey frock coat once sold

glittering words of poetic melancholy.


There in multi-coloured and cumbersome disorder

were daggers, rosaries--fabulous commodities!

In the corner was a wing, dripping with wax,

That had a posted note: Icarus.


Along blue roses, along dusty books,

a hand-made ancient snake was crawling.

I entered, in tears, and immediately

the magician sensed what I was after.


He brought out a crimson-green case

From which he took a brand-new lyre: 

it had a large gold-plated clamp

and wires instead of strings.


I pushed it aside… Then he laid out

another one, an antique with tiny 

dry roses—it was an exquisite lyre

but too fragile for my hands,


Then we looked at gems,

Amber and sapphire words,

mist-words, dawn-words,

words of impotence and power.


And with a doll and the curves of an urn

the wizard courteously tempted me;

he lovingly stroked some azure hair

from the mane of a mythical horse.


Perhaps he was really unusual, 

but I sighed, rejected the sparkles,

stones, and blades—and left, while the owner

watched me, lifting his glasses to his forehead.


My search had failed. With a stern smile,

the magician put away his treasure trove.

What did I need? One simple word

for the grief of human love.





How Can I Explain?


How can I explain? Rays in the memory 

are hidden; sometimes a drowsy light

is roused. O muse, teach: How does the spirit 

flow into understandable verse?

An idle passer-by in a foreign city,

I am , perchance, in front of some house,

that is meaninglessly, piercingly familiar…

Stop! Perhaps only in verse do we tell lies,

darken, and tear up transparent thoughts

for the sake of rhythm?  I believe in 

the rational freedom of living harmony.

You understand, muse, in front of the house

there’s me, a free unknown vagrant,

and me, a native; I stand not as myself, 

and listening to secret singing,

I know all the minutiae at once: 

slanting muslin in the unbroken window,

porch pillars, and above its step

I feel the shade of my footstep, 

a different life, a different fate,

(give me words, give me words, melody),

I know everything, not knowing anything.


What life, what age is emerging,

ringing in the unknown abysses of memory?

My soul, like a woman, hides

its age and experience from me.

I see dreams. I wander and wonder.

In foreign countries I wait for late trains.

I bow to the rumble of mirror cities;

I roam the exciting streets:

home, home; a side-street; a turning

--and there again I stand in front of the house

that is piercingly, piercingly familiar, 

and something darkens and shreds my thought.


Stettin 10.12.2

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